Set in an unnamed South American country the novel opens up to a birthday party that is being held for Mr. Hosokawa the head of a company in Japan that the leaders of the country hope to have them build a plant there. To lure him in they have paid Roxane Coss, the famed soprano opera singer a lot of money to sing for the night, as Mr. Hosokawa is a huge opera fan. And it works in that it has lured him to come, even if he has no intentions of building a plant there. The event is held at the Vice President's house and various important people such as diplomats and foreign industry men who are interested in investing themselves if this deal goes through.
After Roxane Coss sings her last song the lights in the house go out, but no one suspects a thing as this is usual at the opera. But it isn't long before they realize that something is wrong when older men and a lot of very young men, almost boys, with guns burst into the room via the air conditioning shafts. They demand to see the President, who skipped the program in order to watch his favorite soap opera about a poor woman named Maria who gets into all kinds of scrapes and is right now trying to escape her kidnappers. The Vice President, Ruben Iglesias, is cold cocked by a rifle and his face is cut open really bad, but his life is spared by being honest about where the president is.
The three ring leaders are General Hector, General Alfredo, and General Benjamin. Of the three, Benjamin is the most rational. He has shingles across his face that as time and the stress of the situation go on stretch farther and farther across his face. A poor guy who works for the Red Cross and is there on vacation, Messner, a Swiss, volunteers his services and appears at the door to act as mediator and to see to any needs the hostages might have. He convinces the Generals to let the women and those with bad health to go free as a sign of good faith and in return they are given food. The French Diplomat, Thibault and his wife had just rediscovered each other when he took this post in this country find themselves now separated with his fate undetermined. The Monsignor Rolland who hopes to become a Bishop soon leaves with the women while a new and lowly priest, Father Arguedas stays behind. The Generals will not let Roxane Coss go as she is worth a lot of money and capital to someone and they have come to realize that they are not going to get the President after all so they are determined to try to get what they can with who they've got. They want certain prisoners freed, starting with General Benjamin's brother. However, Coss's piano accompanist dies because he refuses to leave her side even though he is a diabetic and he needed the insulin to stay alive. So this does not reflect well on the rebels.
Mr. Hosokawa has an interpreter named Gen Watanabe who knows many languages and is soon being employed by the Generals to help Messner with his bad Spanish and later with the other hostages and to help Mr. Hosokawa and Roxana Coss communicate with each other as they are slowly falling in love. Mr. Hosokawa is a married man, but it was never a passionate loving marriage. It was more like a box he need to check off. One of the men from his company who came for the party plays piano and a friend of the priest's has sheet music that is brought in by Messner and soon music and songs are being heard throughout the house.
Ruben has turned into a housekeeper of his house. He goes around cleaning up and looking after his guests. When the food starts to arrive uncooked, Thibault and Gen and some of the guards who have the knives take to cooking the meals. As a matter of fact the hostages and the guards start to become friendly which each. It's like a Stockholm Syndrome on both sides. They are living in some kind of false paradise that you know is not going to last as Messner keeps telling them to surrender before it too late, but no one listens. The priest knows what is going on is doomed and that there is no future like they are dreaming of, but they will have to find out for themselves.
This book shows how the power of music can affect people and create connections even among people who do not share a common language. Lots of people have no idea what the exact words mean that are being sung in an opera, but the music and the voices tell you what is being said. When I read this book I thought it would make a great opera. It turns out it has been made into an opera by Renee Fleming who was the inspiration for Roxane Coss. Ms. Patchett, by the way, based her book very loosely on the hostage situation in Peru in 1996. A Bel Canto is Italian for beautiful song or beautiful singing which this book seems to be about.
He believed that life, true life, was something that was stored in music. Ann Patchett (Bel Canto p 5)
He did not have to give up his love. In fact, after that he changed his mind completely and decided that such beauty would have to be one with God. The music gave praise, he was sure of that, and if the words too often focused on the sins of man, well, did Jesus himself not explore this subject exactly? When he suffered from any feelings of questionable discomfort, he simply rectified the situation by not reading the libretti. He had studied Latin in seminary, but he refused to make the connection to Italian. Tchaikovsky was especially good in these cases, as Russian escaped him completely. Sadly, there were times when the lust came through the music rather than the words. Having no understanding of French did not keep a priest safe from Carmen. Carmen gave him dreams. In most instances, though, he was able to pretend that every man and woman in every opera sang with so much grace and splendor because they sang about the love of God in their hearts. - Ann Pattchett (Bell Canto p 53)
There were worse reasons to keep a person hostage. You keep someone hostage for what he or she is worth to you, for what you can trade her for, money or freedom or somebody else you want more. Any person can be a kind of trading chip when you find a way to hold her. So to hold someone for a song, because the thing you longed for was the sound of her voice, wasn't it all the same? The terrorists, having no chance to get what they came for, decided to take something else instead, something that they never in their lives knew that they wanted until they crouched in the low, dark shaft of the air-conditioning vents: opera.--Ann Patchett (Bel Canto p 71)
A daughter was a battle between fathers and boys in which the fathers fought valiantly and always lost. He knew that one by one each of his daughters would be lost, either honorably in the ceremony of marriage or, realistically, in a car pointed out towards the ocean after dark. -Ann Patchett (Bel Canto p 121)
Gen, in his genius for languages, was often at a loss for what to say when left with only his own words.--Ann Patchett (Bel Canto p 145)
Sleep was a country for which he could not obtain a visa.-Ann Patchett (Bel Canto p 210)
It's easier to love a woman when you can't understand a word she's saying.-Ann Patchett (Bel Canto p 223)
"People love each other for all sorts of different reasons", Roxane said..."Most of the time we're loved for what we can do rather than for who we are. It's not such a bad thing, being loved for what you can do." "But the other is better, " Gen said. "Better. I hate to say better, but it is. If someone loves you for what you can do it's flattering, but why do you love them? If someone loves you for who you are then they have to know you, which means you have to know them."-Ann Patchett (Bel Canto p 224)
There was an incredible logic to kissing, such a metal-to-magnet pull between two people that it was a wonder that they found the strength to prevent themselves for succumbing every second. Rightfully, the world should be a whirlpool of kissing into which we sank and never found the strength to rise up again. --Ann Patchett (Bel Canto p 250)Link to Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Bel-Canto-P-S-Ann-Patchett/dp/0061565318/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1481567982&sr=8-1&keywords=bel+canto